1987 – Mixing Media: An Interview with Susan Meiselas

Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas has published her documentary work in newspapers, magazines and books, each time opening herself to the possibility of misinterpretation.

Ever since the invention of the halftone plate, photographers and the media have existed in uneasy symbiosis. This curious relationship has assumed increasing importance with advances in printing and reproduction technologies: as photographic images become more readily available, we expect and depend on them in greater measure. Often if we understand a situation at all it is in part because someone was there with a camera; yet just as often the photographs we see have been selected, cropped, laid out, captioned, sequenced and distributed by someone other than the photographer.

This fact can be particularly important for photographers who cover political events. In an effort to hear a photographer’s perspective on media presentation, Photo Communique contacted Susan Meiselas, whose work in Central America has earned her an international reputation, and asked her to discuss some of her experiences with the media.

Meiselas first went to Nicaragua in June of 1978 and almost immediately found herself in a situation which became a focus of public attention in North America and Europe. Prior to 1978 she had considered herself a documentary photographer rather than a photojournalist, with books and exhibitions being the major outlets for her work — in part because magazines showed little interest in her projects at the time. However, in Nicaragua, she said, “Suddenly I was thrust into a situation in which my work was used by magazines [even though] I wasn’t shooting for magazines — I was shooting for history …. I did get a sense of the purpose of magazine reporting, but the images were dispersed in the magazines that used them, and a year later I decided to collect them into a book.” Nicaragua: June 1978 – July 1979, by Susan Meiselas and edited with Claire Rosenberg, was published by Pantheon Books in 1981. Meiselas spoke about some of her problems with the publishing process: she stressed that the book project became possible after her work received exposure in magazines, but that this did not win her editorial control over the book. “I was appalled by the cover design, in which I had no participation,” she said, “but I was told, ‘that’s the cover.’ My name was too large, which was inappropriate — I felt so secondary to the power of events and the people who were making that history. But [the publishing] world is about selling, and [Pantheon] evidently felt it was better to say, ‘Girl photographer — American — finds revolution’ in order to sell books. It was like a meat market . . . but it was important to me that people know about this place. It was important to publish the material, and they were the publishers interested.”

Other compromises had to be made in publishing Nicaragua in order to reach the broadest possible audience and keep the book within a modest price range. Originally Meiselas had intended that images and text would be interwoven, but in order to publish the book at reasonable cost in three languages (English, French and Spanish) all the colour pages had to be printed at one time, and the text printed separately. “I had to reconceive the text as a thing unto itself, with the [reduced] black and white pictures as a reference. Somehow, artistically, I couldn’t put it all together, but I had to be willing to experiment. With Carnival Strippers [published in 1976 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux] it had been even worse. The designer was exploitative and the typeset was garish; it made fun of people and wasn’t as respectful as the images. I re-member picking up the dummy and being horrified, and was told it was already set. These are experiences you learn from, and try to avoid later.”

Meiselas pointed out that having a Spanish edition of the Nicaragua book at moderate cost did have some tangible benefits: 2,500 copies were distributed, largely through the University of Central America in Costa Rica, and the book was eventually circulated throughout Central America, often being passed hand to hand. She said that her experiences with Nicaragua were useful when preparing El Salvador, a book which she edited: “This time the publisher said, ‘I trust what you want to do — we will find a way to publish it,’ and we decided everything.” Even apparently small decisions were significant, according to Meiselas. She described the widespread political terrorism in El Salvador, and spoke about the dangers faced by those who worked on the book: “With El Salvador it was important to make a statement, but there was a genuine risk of physical harm to the photographers involved. We spent long hours discussing whether or not we should put our names in the book — it was important that the images be seen, and therefore [we felt] we should have the courage to sign the work, that we as witness gave the images greater force …. Only about twenty-five percent of the images had been previously reproduced, and when we put the pictures together the editing was done in New York and I took down a Xerox [of the edited material]. It was scary going to the airport for fear someone would find it …. The night the photographers got together, we literally had to hide under the table and do the layout on the floor.”

El Salvador, published by the Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative in an English edition of 12,500 and distributed by W. W. Norton, sold out within a year. [1] The images in the book now travel as an exhibition which has had approximately sixty showings to date, including the International Center of Photography in New York, the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston and numerous other colleges, schools and public libraries. “That range has been wonderful,” Meiselas said. “The images began in newspapers and magazines and have traveled a long life since then.” She believes that a good photograph has a life-span that exceeds any single usage, and conceded that the way an image might first be used is not necessarily ideal. She added that photographers have a responsibility to find as many ways as possible to distribute their work. “I feel that the issue for photographers is how far do you take your own images — how urgent do you feel that is? If a magazine pays me and the work goes on in another form, that is good — that’s when the relationship between photographers and the media is best.”

“The first level of compromise,” Meiselas continued, “is how many magazines can you work for that are as committed as you? It’s rare: the Carnival Strippers images were never published in America, but in Europe the material was of interest. European magazines create space for images in ways that American magazines don’t.”

Meiselas also talked about the relationship between publishing and exhibiting photographs. With the Nicaragua work she found that she “couldn’t accept the notion of the images as art …. I’m still uncomfortable with the idea of even a good friend saying, ‘I would like that picture.’ Shows did not seem necessary — it’s happened; the book is a better document. With the El Salvador work, things are still in crisis [there], and exhibiting the work serves a different purpose. The idea is to make the work as accessible as possible. It could have been a very different kind of show at Castelli [Gallery] — five-by-seven-foot radical chic prints — but that wasn’t the point.”

Although Meiselas resisted showing the Nicaragua photographs in an art exhibition context, she did produce an exhibition of the work that dealt specifically with the issue of photographs and the media. Shown at the Side Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne, England, as Demasking: The Making of “History” /The Making of a Book, and at Camerawork in London as Nicaragua: Mediation: Meiselas, the show also traveled to the Museum Folkwang in Essen, Germany. The exhibit compared, on three levels, tear sheets from magazines; framed photographs from her Nicaragua work; and tear sheets from the book, out-take photographs of similar situations or examples of other ways the photographs were used. Meiselas cited, for example, a photograph from Nicaragua in which three masked youths are practicing throwing contact bombs. The image was published by The New York Times in July, 1978; it appeared in the book; and it also was used by the Nicaraguans as a tourist poster. Meiselas feels that tracing the various uses to which an image is put helps a viewer understand “the book, the events, and the reappropriation of images back into Nicaraguan culture …. The show is about the struggle to clarify choices, the complexity of every decision.” There are other examples in the exhibit of the way in which images evolve: the photograph of a Sandinista throwing a Molotov cocktail (in Nicaragua) was used on a poster as a symbol of the revolution, on a matchbox, on a stamp, and it appeared all over the streets of Managua, in reversed form, as a wall stencil. “What happens to the image is extraordinarily interesting,” Meiselas said, stressing that she sees a significant difference between the misuse of an image by the media and this kind of adaptive re-use, in which an image is integrated back into the situation it describes. (She expressed little concern about the “borrowing” and reversal of one of her images by the Nicaraguans, but more than once during the interview spoke of her objections to intentional media distortion, no matter what the form.)

Meiselas has encountered many different situations in her experience with magazines, both positive and negative. She discussed a story that appeared in Time in February 1981, which used a strong, factual image whose impact was weakened by an ambiguous text: “The pictures are captioned in one way, the story is written in another — who knows what the reader understands? I wanted to say, ‘Wait — this happened — this is not pretending’; why was the text like this? [To give another example] Business Week ran a photograph of kids [in Nicaragua] holding milk and meat in a food line, with a caption about food rationing. The picture was made in 1979 when free milk and meat were distributed after the revolution. In 1983 it was used and captioned in [this] story about rationing, despite the caption on the back of the picture. Magnum called Business Week, but they said, ‘It doesn’t matter’; and if you ask a lawyer, [he] will say you have no case. Magnum sometimes makes mistakes, and I know that there is a risk that a picture will be misused, but if I didn’t take the risk what would I do?”

“Some magazines do things well,” Meiselas said, “but I don’t think the ‘best spread’ is always the issue. One makes a lot of discoveries with the pictures [in circulation]; they take on a life of their own and become important to people for reasons I can’t even imagine. With the media using my work, there is a kind of re-bounding — it integrates me into a bigger world, on many levels; when the images take on their own life and become part of other people’s lives, they bring me into those lives.”

Meiselas takes the issue of being brought into others’ lives very seriously. She talked with considerable feeling about being in Nicaragua in July of last year, at a time when the United States had just appropriated $100 million for aid to the Contras. On her sense of frustration in the face of this kind of circumstance she said, “I felt unable to photograph, and this paralyzation was very real — framing something to make a photograph was almost like a death watch. In 1978,” she continued, “putting the images together into a book made the experiences and the events coherent. In 1986 making a frame was almost as if I was documenting a people’s fate. I didn’t want to be there to be witness to that; it was also an acknowledgment of my own failure, and the failure of photography to make a difference.”

Passionate about photography and committed to the idea that photographs must be used by the media in order to communicate effectively, Meiselas is nonetheless remarkably sanguine about this usage. She gives credit where it is due and points out that some magazines (Panorama, The New York Times Magazine, Paris Match, Harper’s) have done extraordinary service to her photographs. Pulling out a cover of The New Republic (“The Truth About The Death Squads,” December 26, 1983), and referring again to the risks photographers had to take in El Salvador, she said, simply: “I can’t do better than that ― I was scared shitless making that image, and this made the whole thing worthwhile.”

Finally, Meiselas acknowledges that the process of communication is incompletely understood and that the sense of urgency to communicate is what really matters. While she feels the most meaningful experience for a photographer would involve the entire process, from the making of an image through to the making of a book or picture story — in which “you have to try in so many different ways to reach so many different kinds of people” — she admits that the ways photographs are used are sometimes good, frequently imperfect, and occasionally distorted. Meiselas indicates a willingness to accept this fact as part of the communication process. And, she says, photographs themselves are not absolutes with fixed meanings; they are responses to events, situations or circumstances, and vary accordingly: “My images are characteristic of this period in my life, and that place in its time; and my ideas about them come from the living of these experiences.”